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Saved for the Nation: 40 years of the NHMF

History, art, architectureWhy our places matter
Thirlestane Castle in Scotland

Over the last 40 years, the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF) has had a significant impact on the nation’s country house heritage. Yet many people know surprisingly little about the NHMF and how it works. It’s time to find out more, and to highlight the NHMF’s role in rescuing historic houses and their collections.

The NHMF was a successor to the National Land Fund, the innovative £60 million endowment set up in 1946 by the chancellor, Hugh Dalton, to commemorate the sacrifices made during the Second World War. Dalton’s fund was used to transfer land and other assets from private ownership into the custodianship of the National Trust. (Dalton once called the National Trust an example of ‘Practical Socialism in action’.) Starting with Cotehele in Cornwall, many of the National Trust’s acquisitions of country houses in the 1940s and 1950s were funded using the National Land Fund. (The houses were given to the nation ‘in lieu’ of death duties, and the Revenue was reimbursed directly from the NLF for the tax receipts foregone.)

Paxton House in Scotland

Paxton House on the Scottish borders has benefited from NHMF support

The National Land Fund’s coffers were raided by the Treasury in 1957. After this, the rump of the endowment was widely seen to be insufficient to deal with the deluge of country house losses that had been highlighted in the V&A’s famous exhibition of 1974. The saga of Mentmore in 1977 underlined the need for a sufficiently well-resourced fund ‘of last resort’ that could rescue precious heritage at risk.

The NHMF was therefore established under the National Heritage Act of 1980, with an annual budget of over £5 million. The same Act also made it possible for private owners to have collections accepted ‘in lieu’ of capital tax payments, even when those collections remained ‘in situ’. From the outset, therefore, the NHMF was seen as working alongside a tax system that helped to rescue significant parts of the national heritage.

The NHMF’s first annual report highlighted the continuing iniquities of parts of the tax system for built heritage, such as the imposition of VAT on repairs to listed buildings (plus ca change…). Much better, the NHMF felt, that private owners should be given tax incentives to care for the heritage for which they were responsible. When he addressed the Historic Houses Association’s AGM in November 1982, the NHMF’s first chairman reiterated that “it is the Fund’s philosophy that heritage objects are best left in private ownership”.

Weston Park in Shropshire

Weston Park in Shropshire has also benefited from NHMF support

Nevertheless, there are times when the state must step in as the funder at last resort to solve intractable heritage problems. Indeed, much of the NHMF’s resources over the last 40 years has been used to rescue country houses, or the objects stored within them. Of the £368 million that has been spent in total by the NHMF since 1980, nearly a third (over £106 million) has been spent on buildings and monuments. Yet more, nearly £194 million in total, has been spent on paintings, furniture and other treasures, many of which were originally held in country house collections.

The legacy of the NHMF is all around us. Numerous National Trust country house acquisitions were funded through the NHMF, including Calke, Belton, Kedleston and Chastleton. But many significant Historic Houses member houses have also been supported this way, among them Burton Constable, Paxton House, Thirlestane Castle, Hopetoun House, Weston Park and Wentworth Woodhouse. All of these are now established as independent charitable trusts because of NHMF intervention. NHMF funds were also used to rescue precious parts of the collections at, among others, Powderham Castle, Althorp, Castle Howard, Highclere, Belvoir Castle, Mount Stuart and Sudeley.

The full story of the role of the NHMF in saving country house heritage deserves to be better known, understood and celebrated.

Header image: Thirlestane Castle in Lauder has had NHMF support.

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